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Five reasons your ears could be blocked and how to unblock them

Having a blocked ear (or sometimes, even more annoyingly, blocked ears) can be a serious inconvenience, and at times, a health risk. Blocked ears can muffle and distort sounds, reducing your capacity to hear your surroundings. Having blocked ears is not only irritating, but usually comes with other symptoms such as ear pain, itchiness, or dizziness.

When a blockage occurs, especially if it seems out of the blue, you may wonder why your ear is blocked. There are many causes of a blocked ear; surprisingly, it’s not always the case of ear wax buildup. Although there are many reasons an ear can be blocked, we highlight the five most common reasons your ears are blocked. 

1. Eustachian Tube Dysfunction (ETD)

  • The eustachian tube is a small canal (about one and one-half inches long and only a few millimeters in diameter) that runs from either ear (from the middle ear) to the back of the nose and upper throat. Most of the time the eustachian tubes remain closed; however, they will open as a person chews, yawns, or swallows. These tubes are responsible for equalising the pressure from the inner ear to the outside world to ensure they are the same. Another function of the eustachian tubes is to drain built-up mucus into your nose or throat. Generally, a clogged or muffled sensation occurs when the pressure in each middle ear is uneven or when the pressure inside your middle ears is inconsistent with the pressure of the air; this is when your eustachian tubes work to equalise pressure. Sometimes, however, the tubes cannot perform this function, and there are a few reasons why. 

ETD Triggers

  • Swelling-induced blockage – congestion and swelling in the eustachian tubes caused by sinus infections and illness (colds and flus most of the time) cause the tubes of the inner ear to swell and become blocked. As the eustachian tubes cannot drain mucus and circulate air, they disrupt the function of the inner and middle ear. 
  • Physical blockage – in some cases, an overgrowth of tissue in the back of the nose (such as nasal polyps or the adenoids) can block the opening of the eustachian tubes. In rare cases, there may be tumor growth.
  • A ruptured eardrum (perforated eardrum) – this is a hole or tear in the thin tissue that separates your middle and inner ear. This can be caused by a buildup of fluids, loud sounds, foreign objects in the ear, severe head trauma, severe changes in air pressure, and ear infections (see next section). A ruptured eardrum can make your ears even more vulnerable to infections which may further block eustachian tubes. 

speaker

Opening the eustachian tube allows for the release of pressure. This cures the ‘ear block’. If you’re experiencing an infection, antibiotics are usually prescribed to help fight off the infection. Often, for sinus congestion resulting from colds and flues, nasal sprays are also prescribed. However, if the blockage does not clear, there is a dysfunction in the tube. This could cause further complications leading to infection if not treated (though this is rare). If you’re experiencing frequent ear blocks that may be attributed to ETD, it’s a good idea to get your ears checked out by a qualified hearing health specialist

2. Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection)

The middle ear is a sensitive region of the overall ear. The middle ear is located between the eardrum and the oval window and is responsible for transmitting sound from outer ear to inner ear. This is where three incredibly small and sensitive bones called the hammer (malleus), the anvil (incus) and the stirrup (stapes) transmit vibrations into sounds waves that travel into the inner ear. 

Sometime a sinus congestion (resulting from illnesses, sinus infections, and allergies) can cause the eustachian tubes to block, leading to fluid buildup in the middle ear and inflammation. Further, a bacterial sinus infection can spread to the middle ear causing swelling, fluid buildup, and infection. This is a condition known as otitis media and is often associated with ear pain and pressure. Most of the time otitis media will clear up on its own; however, at times antibiotics are prescribed. Treatment is delivered based on the underlying issue – whether it be viral or bacterial. 

Fascinated by how our ears actually work? Learn more about how our hearing works and how our incredibly sensitive ears are able to transform sound waves into real noise we hear. 

child with blocked ear

3. Earwax Blockage

Earwax is a naturally occurring substance which protects the ears from water, bacteria, fungi, and other elements. It helps the ears stay lubricated and clean; however, sometimes excess earwax builds up which causes problems. This is referred to as Excessive Earwax or Impacted Cerumen

Typically, earwax that is produced by the ear is pushed towards the outer part of the ear where it is washed away or falls out; however, people with excess ear wax may find that too much wax in the ear blocks their hearing. Further, as earwax builds up over time, it may harden and become difficult to wash away; this also makes ears more susceptible to blockages. Earwax blockage is not only annoying, but can lead to other health problems. According to Harvard Health, ear canals that become plugged up with earwax can cause earaches, infections, and other problems. 

On top of conductive hearing loss, other symptoms of excessive earwax include pain in the ear, itchiness, or dizziness. For treatment of impacted wax, it’s important to talk to a hearing or ear health specialist. A specialist can remove the wax safely and recommend products and wax-removal methods (more on safe, at-home earwax removal below!). 

cotton swab

4. Otitis Externa (Swimmer’s Ear)

Otitis Externa, or swimmer’s ear, is the inflammation or infection of the canal between the eardrum and outer ear. This is often triggered by exposure to water or over-cleaning the ear. Apart from reduced hearing, a person with this condition may also experience pain, itchiness, pus in the ear canal, and buzzing or humming noises from inside the ear canal. Otitis externa is often treated after first establishing whether the infection is fungal or bacterial. Following this, antibiotics or antifungal medication is prescribed and the ear is cleaned out. 

Other Triggers for Otitis Externa

  • Foreign items in the ear
  • Chemical irritation (hair products)
  • Otitis media
  • Diabetes (this condition makes earwax more alkaline, which creates a more hospitable condition for fungus and bacteria)
  • Folliculitis
  • Narrow ear canals (which make the ear harder to drain)

5. Barotrauma (Aeroplane Ear)

If the pressure in your ear is different from the pressure of the air outside your body for extended periods of time, severe damage to your eardrum can result. This type of damage is called barotrauma and is often experienced by those who scuba dive, fly regularly, and drive or hike at high altitudes. Barotrauma causes ear pain, dizziness, and a feeling of pressure in the ears. Severe barotrauma can cause eardrum rupture, hearing loss, and nosebleeds. 

With this condition, it’s best to treat the discomfort before it escalates and causes damage to the eardrum. On flights, it’s a good idea to chew gum to let your eustachian tube open. When scuba diving, come up to the surface when you first notice discomfort to let your ears equalise. In most cases, symptoms will resolve on their own; however, if serious damage is caused, corrective surgery might be needed. 

airplane

How to Properly Clear Earwax

Ear wax is a natural, healthy and needed bodily fluid. In fact, earwax has been shown to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, according to Harvard Health. Overall, earwax should only be removed if it is causing a blockage. To do so, it is recommended individuals use droplets of hydrogen peroxide, baby oil, mineral oil, or glycerin. These dissolves and softens the wax and allows it to drain out along with the excess liquid. It is recommended that you do not use a cotton swab, as this can push earwax deeper into the ear and cause more blockage, and it can cause damage to the ear canal or eardrum. 

Wash Earwax Away with These Simple Steps

  1.     Soften wax by applying a solution (of one of the substances mentioned above, or a product designed to dissolve wax) with an eye dropper into the ear. Please note that you should never put any fluid in your ear if you suspect an ear perforation (hole in the ear drum).
  2.     Once you have softened your ear wax, visit your GP to remove the ear wax

Though blocked ears can be quite uncomfortable, distracting, and inconvenient, they usually go away on their own or with the appropriate action by your GP. To prevent blockages from forming, always use safe practices when cleaning your ears, like the method outlined above.

Concerned your blockage might be more permanent? If you believe you are experiencing hearing loss then it’s important you get tested right away by a trusting hearing healthcare specialist. Attune is Australia’s leading hearing healthcare provider. With a team of qualified specialists, Attune is there to support Australians with their hearing services. Book with Attune today on 1300 736 702. 

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